WATCH: The Shocking Assassination of President Guy Fieri
Behind the scenes of the all-consuming future of online content creation.
Zoe van Dijk
Good luck finding someone who's actually optimistic about the future of online entertainment, given that major platforms like YouTube and Facebook are currently locked in a death race to the bottom to win meager slices of our attention. Certainly not Hudson Hongo, who, as news editor of Gizmodo, knows as much about this algorithmically mediated, brain-flattening future as anyone, and who brings us a dispatch from the only logical conclusion to the content wars. Enjoy. -the ed.
We're five minutes into the segment on the Packers fan who left two legs in Afghanistan but came back with Jesus in his heart, and right as he's cutting the big ribbon on his second Subway franchise, the algorithm "tweak" we've been fearing for months finally comes. After solid viewcounts all morning, our streaming numbers just went in the shitter—or more like below the shitter, in some shitter sub-basement where producers' careers go to crap themselves and die. That's bad news for me and Toby, who's looking over my shoulder and chewing what sounds like all his fingernails at once.
"Maybe the story just sucks?" he says, watching my monitor. Up on the big screen, strings swell as we cut to the veteran's pit bull, rescued from a dog-fighting ring after his wife saw his stumps and walked out. Thanks to digital editing, the pit bull is barking out a doggy rendition of "God Bless the U.S.A." as it salutes its master with a stiff CGI paw.
No, the segment is great, almost perfect. Our problem is bigger than that. The Success Channel has to rebrand.
We've done it before, of course. Two years ago, I led the pivot from Emotion Live, and before that we were Drunk Seniors React. Since 90 percent of viewers stream exclusively, the "dynamic surfacing formula" of the only video platform that matters determines the fate of all channels. Small outfits like ours do whatever it takes to please the algorithm, which is as mysterious and volatile as an island volcano god. In good times, when the rich get richer and the not-so-rich keep their jobs, I've found the platform favors content about regular folks getting ahead. In the bad times, i.e., right now, the algorithm demands blood.
When I get to Frank's office, he's double-fisting vapes, alternating between one that looks like a laser pistol and the Bic pen-type thing I'm not supposed to know is hash. Hunched over his laptop, he keeps clicking refresh as if our viewcount doesn't update live.
"We're fucked, Vanessa," he says without looking up. "Gravely fucked. TruSTORIES is gonna eat our lunch."
TruSTORIES, our biggest rival, is where I used to work. When I learned from a misaddressed email that my assistant was making 10 grand more, they offered to cut his pay. Frank offered me American Winners, a spinoff of his surprise hit Crying While Reviewing Fast Food. Since then, we've been #1 among invalids and those no longer looking for work. TruSTORIES has been closing in, though, as the executive team seems to mention at every meeting.
"We need to do what I talked about," I tell Frank. "We need to run my new show."
"Impossible," he says. "The lawyers will never go for it. Advertisers will revolt. My mom, who still watches direct every day, will send me a very rude text."
"We don't have a choice. We run the show or keep losing until we die."
He says he'll think about it, and as I walk out of his office, I already know. Frank might not like it, but All-Star Casualties is our future.
"So what'd he say?" asks Toby, who seems to have arranged his finger nibblings into a ritual circle on his desk.
"We're doing it," I tell him, and open up the rough cut I've been putting together at home.
The title graphic still needs work, but the overall effect is uncanny. 20 of today's biggest celebs (plus some throwback names for the old-timers) digitally inserted into footage from the worst disasters of the last hundred years. There's Miley twirling away in Malaysian floodwaters. There's Jaden ducking for cover at the Brazilian tunnel collapse. And who could it be but Guy cruising down Dealey Plaza in the presidential limousine, soon to be ripped from office in a mist of crimson Donkey Sauce, all in lovingly restored 8K Ultra HD?
Personally, I've always preferred the classics—give me a sitcom or police procedural, thanks—but as long as it's not me in the caldera, I like whatever makes the volcano god happy.
Back at the apartment, Angela is still curled up on the couch, our coffee table now covered in diet soda cans. My not-so-kid sister has been streaming all day, and with her viewer profile and income data, that means 14 straight hours of The Success Channel, algorithm change or not.
I drop my bag by her feet and suggest we check out the Carribean place on 5th. Nah, says Angela, I'm studying. Never an enthusiastic student, she means the channel. I ask how she watches this shit.
"You shouldn't insult your work," she says. "It teaches losers like me the entrepreneurial spirit." "Don't give me that," I tell her. "Think about how far you've come." "Because I'm not using? Wait 'til I'm the one on Winners. You'll pick me, someday, you'll see."
Angela points up at the 10 o'clock rerun, a sloppy sob story from before I was on board. A hurricane orphan has returned to the site of her ruined home to close a deal on AggroMAX, the herbal male supplement she developed herself. Standing on the splintered remains of her bedroom, the orphan is shaking hands with a tan pharma exec when a squad of digital fighter jets slashes through the sky. Their contrails dissolve into the stars and stripes, which morph into two clouds meant to look like her dead folks sharing a joyous high-five.
My sister is hooked, sure, but I've seen her huff keyboard cleaner. I pull out my phone to order burgers and silently thank god we're working on something stronger.
When Frank calls me into his office the next morning, his desk is crowded with vape juice bottles and he's wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Surrounded by a truant-looking gang of lawyers, he tells me he's been considering my proposal and has notes.
"The main thing," he says, "is tastefulness."
"Right," I say. "It's gotta be tasteful, of course."
"And educational. We need to be serving the public good."
"We all know how passionate I am about public service."
"Also I don't want anything too graphic. Let's try to keep the red stuff to a minimum, okay?"
"Well, as long as we're all on the same page," Frank says and starts nodding. And then I'm nodding and so are the lawyers and then we're all nodding with such tasteful, educational, non-violent zeal, no one's quite sure when to stop.
When we finally do, the lawyers have some questions of a technical nature. This mapping software, how does it work? It's simple, I say, a machine learning program pulls the celebs from a series of references photos and pastes them into each scene. And these reference photos, are they cleared for use? Yes, I say, fully licensed, with no restrictions on use. And have I reached out to the stars' representatives? Yes, I emailed their people: no answer, as usual. And then they ask what everyone asks: Can we see?
Since the algo switch, TruSTORIES has been running back-to-back episodes of My Pet Ate My Face, Now It's Gone , and on my way in on Monday I feel like the first person to know America has the bomb. I'd almost feel sorry for my old coworkers if I didn't remember how the VP of Engagement spent our final "negotiation" tapping at his phone.
Sure, we've had to retool my vision a bit, but we all agree it's stronger than ever. Now the show opens with a voiceover providing each clip's historical context and closes with an NYU adjunct explaining how TV informs the "Jungian superconscious." Even the advertisers seemed pleased after I hinted at the creative potential of catastrophic product integration. Toby, who always admired the famous and expressed some reservations, has sadly been let go.
By the time I get to the Tipsy Divorcee Enclosure for the on-air premiere, the conference space is standing room only. Promotional wanted to run spots for a month, but the picture-in-picture showing our concurrents makes it clear how desperate things are. We either kill today or start updating our networking profiles.
As the story of the ex-con who taught a three-legged horse sign language fades to black, all the nervous chatter stops. The only sound in the room is Frank sucking his vape when "ALL-STAR CASUALTIES" hits the screen heralded by horns in bold, spinning, 3D type. The Ken Burns soundalike starts droning over zoom-ins of old headlines, and for a minute I'm sure I fucked up. No one will go for this, I think, it's too boring, too old school. Then we get our first glimpse of bloody Taylor crawling out of the train wreckage and everyone cheers. It's a hit.
It takes less than second for the algorithm to catch up. Soon it's delivering viewcounts that make my best days at The Worst Day of My Life a foggy memory, each clip blasting us into previously unexplored regions of ratings heaven. A tornado slurps up Kylie and we're in orbit. Justin gets gunned down outside a Dallas police station and we've landed on Mars.
My phone won't stop buzzing as friends and rivals spam me with praise and inquiries about openings. A cola exec calls me personally to admire the logo I snuck onto Ellen's suicide vest. But right as we get to Guy's big finale, our concurrents drop like a cinder block pushed from a freeway overpass. Half of our viewers have disappeared. Frank groans as if it's him on the screen.
I'm trying to figure out how I pissed off the platform when an intern gripping his laptop with both hands shouts, "Change the channel! Change the channel!" Then I realize where the algorithm sent our viewers. Suddenly I wish they had gone missing.
We flip to TruSTORIES and it's some contest show that has all the sad hallmarks of an original Toby concept, hosted by a manic young woman with a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. One viewer, she explains, is chosen at random and flown expenses-paid to their studio. It then cuts to the familiar Friends coffee shop, but something's definitely off.
While Rachel, Joey, and the rest are all there, their welcoming faces are now attached to hulking bodies, as if they spent the intervening years surviving on protein powder in a gym-equipped dungeon. There's also some nobody on the couch tucked between Ross and Phoebe's bulging shoulders, the kind of person even we never put on screen. For an unsure moment, they sit blinking at the camera. Then Chandler pulls out a tire iron and it's on.
First Chandler is wailing on the nobody, and then its Monica's turn, wielding what looks like a spiked cricket bat. Soon all the Friends are stomping the contest winner, who gives a pained smile and a crooked thumbs up. The smile dissolves into blank horror as Joey, dear God, drives in the first knife.
Before the nobody bleeds out completely, someone shuts off the screen.
Back in the Tipsy Divorcee Enclosure, half the room is frozen in mute shock. Me? I've already moved on. Sure, the Friends snuff job creamed us today, but there's always tomorrow, and my brain is sizzling with a dozen ideas bigger than Toby's, bigger than anyone's, and from now on I'll never hold back.
Picture this: Child assassins stalking their favorite cereal mascots across an island game reserve. History's bloodiest dictators forced to live together in a Seattle loft and find love. A channel that plays 'round-the-clock footage of brand logos tenderly sucking and tugging other brand logos, accompanied by the greatest hits of the '90s (and more).
And if all those fail, there are other shows, other channels, other chances to end up on top. Someday, the algorithm will pick me again. You'll see.